Survivor

Winter in Sparks , Nevada 1960's

Crile R. Dean – Winter, Sparks , Nevada 1960’s

Daddy is from a generation that worked hard.  That never feared sweat and toil.  He grew up on the land, took care of animals and studied late in the night to be the best he could be.

All my life his big hands tackled plumbing and electrical and automotive tasks.  He climbed, fearless, to the roof to patch leaks.  He ascended to the top of the thirty foot apricot tree to cut off a dead branch.  No qualms.

I’m sick and can’t sit up in my seat in class any longer.  My third grade teacher says, go to the nurse.  The nurse feels my head and says, lie down awhile.  I remember thinking, lying down feels good. 

I stretch.  Open my eyes.  No lights.  Dead silence.  No kid noise in the halls.  No teachers talking.  No one laughing or running or hitting the tether-ball on the playground.  No nurse.

Where is everyone?  My heartbeat is so loud my ears hurt.  My chest hurts.  I’m hot all over.  My queasy stomach forgotten.

“What are you doing here?”  The principal says as I stand in his doorway.

“I was sick.  I went to the nurse.  She didn’t wake me.  She left me.”

“Let’s get you home.”

I hope I’m so small in the front seat of the Principal’s car that no one will see me.  We pass kids on the street.  Playing ball.  Walking. Talking. Laughing.  Every head turns our way.  Kids know the Principal’s car.  Now they know I’m in his car.

My face is hot. I want to disappear.  Everyone will think I’ve done something wrong.

“Thank you,” Daddy smiles broadly at the Principal, “for getting her home safe,” he shakes the Principal’s hand, “no harm done.”

No harm done?  I’ll never go to the nurse’s office again.

Daddy cared for us.  He mended the arm of my sister’s glasses.  He maneuvered tiny tweezers to repair Mother’s necklace chain.  He laid brick and cinder block walls.  He mowed the lawn and used the edger with gusto, all with pride in a job well done.  He planted grapes and fruit trees and worked hard in their harvest.  He shared the bounty with friends and strangers.  He loved life.  He laughed and smiled and believed all could be conquered.

I feel sick all over but I’d rather be sick in class than go to the nurse’s office.  That’s a place to avoid like the plague.  If I can hold on another fifteen minutes, school will be out. 

“Did you go to the nurse?” Mother takes my temperature, “Measles.  Sixteen is old for measles.  Go to bed.  Why didn’t you come home early?”

I just want to lie down and block out everything.

I wake to distant sounds of family around the supper table.  It’s dark in my room.  I’m hot.  Parched.  Safe at home. 

Then I’m eight years old again and waking in that deserted nurse’s office. 

I haven’t thought of that since it happened.  No wonder I avoided the nurse today.  I smile in the dark.  I’m not that little girl any more. I’ll be strong, like Daddy is strong.

Daddy working the trailer hitch, 1980's, with Uncle Bruce observing

Daddy working the trailer hitch, 1980’s, with Uncle Bruce observing

I remember Daddy working under the car in the garage.  Oil change, transmission repair, tires patched, some busted blown broken component replaced – whatever it took – so the car would once again go.

I remember we sat stopped off the side of Route 66, the Arizona desert undulating pinks and browns and beiges in the sweltering 100 plus degrees of an August day, while Daddy changed a blown tired.  We kids squabbled about the sticky back seat in the constant furnace blast of air that is summer, while in the front seat, Mother looked faint, anxious and exhausted.

It really ticks me off that I have Mother’s stamina.  Or lack of stamina.  She fatigued.  I fatigue.  I swore I’d be like Daddy.  Strong, independent, capable, positive. Healthy.

Not like Mother.  Tired.  Weepy.  Stressed out.  She spent three months in bed after a hysterectomy, then had pneumonia, then a lupus type flare-up that cleared up as mysteriously as it had come.  Always something wrong. 

I won’t be like her.  Yet here I am.  Had to change my entire diet to stop constant sinus infections that morph into bronchitis.  Funky hormones that don’t work right.  Thyroid disease.  I’ll be on meds the rest of my life.  Really ticks me off. 

Daddy did whatever it took to take care of us.  Even when it meant auto repair work that was dirty and greasy and often held up our well-laid plans.  I remember I thought when I grew up I’d have enough money to pay for such jobs.  No getting dirty for the man in my life.  No waiting by the side of the road for a maybe-maybe not rescue.

Except no man ever measured up.  No man ever rode to my rescue.  Instead it was me who had to pay for repairs.  It was me who had to find solutions.  I remember long distance calls as I sat alongside the highway waiting for the tow truck.

“Here’s what it sounded like, Daddy,” I’d say, “what do I tell the mechanic?”

Breathe deeply, girl.  How would Daddy handle it?  He’d be grateful for another day of life, another opportunity to be positive with those around him.  He was cheerful. He knew God made him and he could trust God for who he was.

I have to choose.  Believe.  Deal with who I am and what my body needs.  What’s the alternative?  Get mad?  Get depressed?  Avoid doctors and nurses offices?  Binge on problematic foods and suffer the consequences?  Give in to needing to be pampered, like Mother?

There’s no contest. I won’t be like her.  I can’t change the way I was made.  I can control how I respond.  Like Daddy or like Mother.

Daddy and Mother, Pomona, Ca 1990's

Daddy and Mother, Pomona, Ca 1990’s

I sit in the house that was Daddy and Mother’s and marvel that he was my retirement age when they moved in here.  My age when he poured concrete and installed the heating/cooling unit, built the back porch overhang, ran electrical wiring for lamps where the old Craftsman style house needed more electrical outlets, replaced the shower stall, added cabinets to a bare kitchen wall, hung a microwave, toaster and electric can opener under those same cabinets, hung shelf brackets on the walls for shelves that now hold books, two and three rows deep.  And he did all this while working a full-time job that included hours on the highway.  He may be gone now, his earthly productiveness finished, but I see him everywhere I look.

My retirement is an unexpected journey: freedom to not be in the mad paced work world; freedom to have energy for exercise; freedom to learn new things; to take classes; to write; to cook, which is a toss-up – successful meal or hardly edible – freedom to be the best I can be, and most surprising, freedom to be at peace with Mother.

By the time Daddy had slowed in age and had stopped trying to repair automobiles with their computer components and modern molded plastic parts, I’d learned to do some rehab and repair items with my own hands.  Though never as detailed as the skills Daddy had and never with the power that flowed from his large hands.

He walked three miles a day up until six months before he died.  Cancer.  Something takes each of us at the end, right?  He was six weeks away from eighty-nine.  He loved life and lived it fully.  He believed he was headed to a place without pain or limitations or suffering. I believe, too.  I’ll see him there, one day.

Meanwhile, life in this old house continues for Mother and me.  I’m here so her days will end in her own home.

She has surprised me by learning to let go of the expectation I could do what Daddy did.  While I didn’t inherit his big hands or his strength, I did inherit his work principle and his belief in joy and love.  The bedrock he gave my life lives.  I decide to laugh and believe that all can be conquered. And some days I see a glimmer of Mother deciding to give up her worry.

Mother keeps on going.  Through the pain of a twisted spine, crooked and hurting hips, heart disease, swollen legs, heavy medications with weird side effects, she keeps moving.  She’s nearly eighty-eight.  She might have it easier in these late days if she’d kept moving and walking years ago.  If she’d changed her diet and dealt with her swollen legs in the decades before heart disease took over.

Still, I’ve come to the late realization that she’s much more of a fighter than I ever knew.  She’s stubborn and no one will stop her until she’s ready to stop.

“Quit nagging me to eat,” she pushes her plate away.  She looks small and frail after two months bedfast with bruising and sores on her leg.  She lost her appetite and went down another ten pounds.

“Are you ready to quit,” I stand next to her in her permanent spot at the dining room table, hands on my hips, and try to keep the frustration out of my voice, “ready to go home to God?  Ready to finish this life?”

She doesn’t look at me.

“Because if you don’t eat, that’s what will happen.”  I watch her as she thinks it over.

She pulls her plate back and takes another bite, “No.  I’m not ready to go.”

Mother - all dressed up for church

Mother – all dressed up for church

That was last month.  Now she’s back making her own breakfast.  Gets herself dressed.  Pulls on compression hose.  Takes her vitamins and medications.  Moves around the house again.  Her weight is up two pounds.

Maybe it’s ok for me to be like Mother.  She’s a survivor.  Daddy was a survivor.  I can take the best from both of them.  I’m a survivor.

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Daddy’s Desk

image source: Bing images

image source: Bing images

In the top drawer is Daddy’s inexpensive silver wristwatch with its flexible, stretch band.  Without his warm flesh and steady heartbeat, it stopped.  I tried wearing it when I noticed, but it was too late.  So it lays here, the date feature, Mon 20, the time, 5:05 p.m. and ten seconds.

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Funny that, since Daddy died on Monday the 20th.  I wonder now, did it stop the day he died, or did it run longer?  I can’t remember, which is strange, because at the time, I thought I’d never forget.

I’ve kept the yellow post-it notes he wrote and stuck on the side of the filing cabinet by the desk.  Doctor’s number, appointment reminders, police and newspaper phone numbers.  I like looking at his handwriting.  Printing, really.  The only time he used cursive was to write his distinctive and legible signature.

image source: Bing images

image source: Bing images

I was an adult before he confessed his handwriting was terrible, so he printed.  I’d always thought his familiar script was his preferred writing; neat, precise letters in a straight line, the “a” like a typewriter “a” with the tail curving across the top.  Not like the round “ɑ” they taught me in grade school.

I want to remember him in his strength; when it was easy to open drawers, when his watch ticked efficiently; when it was nothing for him to write a note to me, or to write in the checkbook.  I don’t want to think about those days he wasted away to a potbelly on a skeleton frame, the minutes and hours and days of caregiving roaring loud in my ears as we inched across the horizon toward his setting sun.

His abdomen filled with fluid as his body failed from liver cancer.  I was clueless.  He hardly ate, yet his pants were too tight to button?  I cringe now to think of things I could have done to make his days easier.

I don’t want to remember the last time he wrote.  The first time we went to the lab to have 2 liters of fluid drawn off his belly, he signed and dated the forms with ease.  The last time we went, his consent signature looked like the illegible scribbles of a two-year old.  His precise, neat printing and his one concession to cursive writing were gone.  It wasn’t long before he was gone.

Crile R. Dean

Crile R. Dean

I come often to this place that was Daddy’s domain.  I sit at the big metal desk that’s marred by years of use and run my hands over the scratched and scarred surface.  I can see how he grasped the handle of each drawer, the black paint worn away to gun-metal gray where his thumb extended to press for leverage to pull them open.  In memory I see him here.  He calls me honey.  He sings, smiles, talks ethics, politics, religion and sports.  He remains in my heart.  Until I join him, I’ll hold on to the simple reminders.  I won’t forget.

Storage Closet

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

Boxes of envelopes;
envelopes small.
Could conceal in the
palm of my hand.
Envelopes long
from wrist to fingertip.
Once white,
grayed;
once red,
paled.

Years stuffed
in little envelopes.
Dust motes fly.

I bend to
drag the boxes
from under the stairs;
trail
across asbestos
tiles.

History’s trail.
Years and years and years
marked by envelopes.
Decades
of effort
of sacrifice
of giving
of planning
of believing.
It’s down to this.

I run my hands through
my hair and ceiling popcorn
kernels dance in the air.

Pretty precise tiny handwriting
floats across the envelopes;
the gift marked,
the giver denoted,
the register
straight,
documented with deliberation.

I recognize some of the names;
Mother’s tales of
busy church life.
I recognize Daddy’s method.
The stuff he stored in neat, tight
packages.
Earlier years
dumped humble-jumble,
before his time here.
No one’s done storage since.
Did organization die with him?

The ghosts of worship services,
classroom flannel boards,
babies and toddlers nursery,
men’s softball teams,
Women’s Dumb-M-U,
Vacation Bible School,
Christmas pageants,
Easter cantatas,
they’re all here.

This life has nearly ground
halted.
The old guard, anyway.

The generations
who began,
succored, labored,
loved,
gave;
now gone.
I’ve seen
epitaphs,
visited grave sides, sang at
memorials.

Yet, life goes on,
similar,
tho’ different.

These old walls
to be painted,
asbestos tiles
replaced,
choir loft converted
to worship band stage;
failing pews faded into
sturdy chairs,
their rows march.

It’s a whole new world.
Strange to Mother’s
ears and eyes.
Different name,
different affiliation,
different heritage,
different style,
yet the same
point.

Worship
Train
Give
Love
Tell
Believe.

So great a cloud of
witnesses
smile,
applaud,
know they
laid the groundwork,
ran their race well.

This place is temporary.
This life is temporary
I remember.

Still, I’m comforted by the
sameness,
the continuity.
I like the purpose I find here.

I know
one day someone will
clear out my
storage closet.

I’m headed for the eternal
just like the generations before.

Wish

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

I was covered with dust and grime from digging through boxes in the garage when I found the one marked TOYS. Using a Swiffer cloth, I wiped off the small box and my hands.  What toys did we have that Mother would have saved and that Daddy would have tucked into the tightly stacked boxes on the shelving in the garage eaves?  We never had the money to buy anything expensive that would be worth keeping, so I couldn’t think what it could be.  I peeled away the packing and memories flooded my mind.

I was ten years old.  We had just moved from the San Fernando Valley to Simi Valley at the foot of the Simi Hills, close to Daddy’s new job testing rocket fuels at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.  Any money that Christmas season would go towards a modest Christmas dinner.  If there were any gifts, they would have to be handmade.

The weeks when Daddy and my two brothers spent time at night in the garage while my sister and I worked with Mother in the house to create something for Christmas seemed an eternity.  What could they be making for us?  There were many things I could wish for, but nothing I could think of equaled the sound of tools and the secrecy that barred us from the garage.

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

At last the day arrived and we gathered in the living room, around the spindly tree covered with one string of fat bulbs, lit in alternating red, blue, green, yellow and white; silver tinsel carefully spread strand by strand over the tree, a red construction paper chain and a few cardboard and construction paper figures we had made.  Mother had carefully kept a box of shiny Christmas ornaments.  We treated them like they were gold.  It was beautiful and mysterious.  We read the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth and then opened our gifts.

The gift from Daddy and my brothers to my seven year old sister and I was miniature doll furniture.  Wooden and handmade.  I was mesmerized.  This was a better wish than I could have dreamed up on my own.  The detail, the time, the beauty of the craft it took to create small works of art. I was overcome with joy and happiness.  It didn’t matter that we had no dolls small enough to play with on this miniature furniture.

image source:Bing images

image source:Bing images

“You made these?” I asked Daddy. “Did the boys help?”

“Yes, sweetheart,” Daddy’s eyes twinkled, “we worked together.”

All these years later as I stand in the garage and look at those labors of love and ingenuity, I am again overcome and need to share it.  I dig my cellphone out of my pocket and tap on my sister’s number, 500 miles to the north.

“I just found the gift from one of my favorite Christmases,” I said when she answered.  “The miniature furniture Daddy and the boys made for us in Simi Valley.  Remember?”

“Not now, Kenzie,” my sister said to her great-granddaughter, then back into the phone, “that stuff they made for us?  The worst Christmas ever!”

We talked and remembered and laughed and got caught up on current emergencies and challenges and said good-bye.

I sat in the dirty garage fingering those small pieces.  Funny how the same family experience can be so different, sibling to sibling.  I still felt the wonder of a Christmas wish that had no name, the beauty of just us six, our little oasis of love and security, wrapped in our own swaddling clothes of family working together, laid in the manger of belief and trust.

It was a wish I never knew I’d made but it was lived out by my big, strong Daddy who made Christmas beautiful for me and by the special treat of Mother’s Christmas turkey that was always delicious; it was the love we had that turned out to be the greatest wish.  It lived on as my brothers and sister built Christmas traditions with their families that in some form continue what we six had.  It still lives on even though Daddy is now gone and Mother’s strength is waning so that I do most of the Christmas turkey.  It lives on in eternity because it is the wish of the love and mystery and beauty of Christmas.

Certainty

image:elliottback fir tree

image:elliottback fir tree

Choices, decisions, blue sky revisions into gray.  Live Christmas tree settled into its new hole in the center of the backyard.  All by itself at three and ½ feet tall with great expectations of one day rising higher than the fence then towering over the garage.  But first its roots will need to expand, stretch, wriggle their way further into the rocky, root soil under the winter grass.  When and if it survives and grows and towers, its tips could fill the yard, closing all paths of access to the grapevines and the alley and the garbage cans.  How would Miguel mow the grass in the back quarter of the yard?  How would we get to the nectarine bounty that returns each year to the tree in the back corner, next to the butterfly bush?

But that’s all years away, right?  It takes time to grow, my friend.  There’s a pattern and a sequence programed into this tree’s DNA that even plant food can’t replicate, if you get my drift.  But it’s the years flying by at super-speed, that I’m seeing here, trailing changes as wisps of clouds or sifting as the smoke from that fire in Angeles National Forest last week that made the sky red and brown and black for a while until it cleared and revealed it’s handiwork of change.

We hadn’t been that direction for days, so when Mother and I drove to church on Sunday, in the beautiful blue sky morning, as we crested the hill where the 57 on-ramp merges into the northbound lanes headed for the 210, I looked to the hills for what the fire had left behind and saw an expanse of black hill like one part of a patchwork quilt, rising between the billowed up greens and browns and yellows of the rest of the rolling hill patches.  But what surprised me were the small, scattered here and there across the hills, spots of gray.  Bare spots like the hair on a dog has been pulled out at random.

From the church parking lot, closer to the hills, they were even more evident.  As we were leaving, I put the bag with our Bibles and study books in the car and waited for Mother to make her way out of the building.  Her movement is slower these days, but she still gets there, hair permed and styled and sprayed, purple slacks, flowered blouse of pinks, purples, greens and yellows under a white sweater.  Her pinkish-purple lipstick matching her necklace of Sugilite pinkish-purple stones that she loves to wear.

image:lauramariemeyers

image:lauramariemeyers

“See those bare, gray spots on the hills,” I said when she got close enough to hear what I was saying.

She stopped walking, steadied herself with her cane and looked up, “Yes.”

“That’s where the fire was spreading from Glendora to Azusa.”

“Oh, it did get close, then, didn’t it?”

We get settled in the car, without hurry as Mother puts her cane in the floor of the back seat, carefully settles herself in the front seat, putting her purse on the floor and tucking the purse strap over the edge of her seat and under her leg.

My thoughts alternate between flying forward in time to seeing myself no longer at this slow-Mother-pace and back to moderating my speed to give Mother time to get where she’s going.

Will I be in this town, live in this house long enough to see that live Christmas tree spread and grow and fly high in its growth in the yard?  Mother could live another ten years or die in her sleep tonight.  Only God knows.  Only God knows the beginning spark of life that wrote the DNA in the tree and the DNA that with time will fill up those gray spots on the hills.  He’s the one that will hold Mother’s soul and spirit when the slow life of her DNA takes its last breath.  I try to envision the future, to find some comfort in picturing what might come next, but that’s as futile as believing for a certainty that I can tell which side of that Christmas tree in the center of the yard will grow best now that it’s out in the wind and sun and cold and heat.

I long to know my certainty.  I need to know.  I think life will go on after Mother’s speed has one day slowed to a stop.  I want to know my life will go on; at least for a time.  I do know my turn to slow to a stop will come.  Someday, sometime, somewhere and when that happens, the unchanging constant is that the creator of all DNA will be there and his time does not slow and run out.  He continues beyond eternity.  After all, since he’s big enough to create DNA, he’s big enough to hold the future.  My future.  This I know.  For a certainty.